Monday, July 07, 2014

An Amazonian Herione and her love song to the prairies

(Spoilers ahead!)

Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” is the literary equivalent of a heritage monument that deserves the solicitous attention of cultural councils and ceremonies of felicitation to ensure that its significance is always kept alive in public memory. It is set in Nebraska towards the end of the 19th century and as the title succinctly suggests, its plot unfolds during the period when the first European settlers tried to establish their homesteads and build new lives in the prairies.

“But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes”

“In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression upon the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man.”

The book begins with the sense of helplessness that the protagonist, Alexandra Bergson and her family experience in trying to “tame” the wild grasslands and in cultivating wheat and corn on the land that they own. Alexandra’s father John left behind his life as a shipyard worker in Sweden in search of the better prospects that the New World represented to those who only saw meagre prospects for themselves on the Old Continent. The early chapters convey the sense of utter displacement that Alexandra’s father and others like him face from relinquishing both their patrimony as well as the livelihood that they have known and practiced their entire lives. For people who had never been farmers, the prospect of cultivating on land that seems implacably hostile to both agriculture and human settlement seems daunting. The sense of futility overwhelms several of the families in the Divide, where the Bergsons lived and drives them to sell their land and move away to other parts, where they know the land to be more fertile or in pursuit of opportunities to practice their old occupations in the reassuring anonymity of big cities.

It is at this crucial juncture that this novel distinguishes itself from most other works of fiction produced in the early 1900s. John Bergson nominates his daughter to take charge of his estates when he would no longer be around and secures his two sons’ promise that they would follow their sister’s lead and would never sell the land that he had painstakingly acquired. Alexandra sees potential in the land that others viewed as unappeasable and decides to buy the land that her neighbors begin to sell despite her brothers’ strident objections. Her faith in the land is eventually validated and the novel sees her find peace and companionship after a lifetime of stoically facing every misfortune and trial virtually by herself.

This book has been hailed for being among the earliest feminist novels due to its portrayal of a strong female protagonist. Alexandra is introduced to us as “a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next. She wore a man’s long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier).” Her “glance of Amazonian fierceness” effectively silences a man who lets a flirtatious exclamation slip out of him on seeing her. These few sentences entirely describe the cardinal dimensions of Alexandra’s character that become manifest throughout the arc of the storyline. Her decisiveness and clarity of thought through every predicament and her role as the head of the family sit consistently with the image of the strong girl in the man’s ulster we meet in the first few pages.

One of the reasons the book left an enduring impact on me was certainly because of the wholesome pleasure of reading about a strong woman and the fact that she was conjured in the mind of an author during a time when as the preface reminds us, most female characters would either passively suffer the lot that they were born into or restricted themselves to being consumed by romantic relationships, both their own and of others around them. A bigger reason for me clinging yearningly to this book as I read its every page and going back to its passages even as I had moved on to reading another book was because of how much I enjoyed reading about the feeling of magnetic attachment that Alexandra felt towards the prairies. I am not sure if I can claim empathy to the full extent of Alexandra’s sentiment towards the land on which she has lived most of her life. I have been moving across geographical locations more frequently than I would have liked over the last few years. All I have experienced is a fragment of what Alexandra feels, such as feeling and perhaps even knowing, for one magical moment, that I am actually in conversation with the great mountains while hiking up the slopes within Chilean Patagonia. This has happened over and over again, in the Welsh countryside, in the Appalachians, in the Western Ghats and in the foothills of the Himalayas; I remember being wrapped in this feeling of belonging to the hills and the mountains.

For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious.

Despite having only fractured and sporadic experiences of the sensation described in the novel, I do know what makes that emotion precious – this love for the physical environment transcends patriotism, religion and the spirit of family and community. I see it as a connection that is solely defined between an individual and that minuscule area of the planet which he or she presently occupies as if the land itself were a living being and is unfiltered by the lens of any other human construct. The emotion feels primordial and therefore, more pure and true relative to forms of attachment that arise through the exigencies of social custom and conditioning.

There are other characters in the novel who feel this attachment to land and to the elements. A reclusive Norwegian, referred to as “Crazy Ivar” by the others in town had abdicated nearly all the trappings of human civilization and chose to live in isolation in the woods and nominated himself the protector of the local fauna from the predatory instincts of the gun-owners around him. He could treat sick horses and understood the needs and behavior of birds and animals purely by instinct. He spoke little English and could communicate with these other living beings better than he did with the humans around him. While everybody else saw in him an abnormal person, even one “possessed” by spirits as her brothers insinuated, Alexandra saw in him a useful farm hand who could tend to the animals with utter sincerity. On more than one occasion, it is clear that Alexandra and Ivar saw each other as kindred spirits, connected by the instincts and affection that they each felt for Nature.

Marie Shabata, Alexandra’s Bohemian neighbor who becomes an important character later in the novel explains to Alexandra’s youngest brother Emil, “I do feel as if this tree knows everything I ever think of when I sit here. When I come back to it, I never have to remind it of anything; I begin just where I left off.” Marie is also one of Alexandra’s closest friends and it is easy to perceive the heightened sense of connection with all that is in the natural world among those she considers to be her kin.

An aspect of the novel that made it extremely interesting for the history buff in me is the diversity of cultural heritages of characters within it. This is that part of American history when the French, the Bohemians, the Swedes, Norwegians, Russians, Germans, were still exploring hitherto uninhabited parts of the country to identify where they could set up their homesteads for themselves and their progeny. The older characters have not yet learnt English and each group still retains their cultures and traditions, while also contributing to the formation of a common fabric of American culture.

I bought the novel right outside Central Park during my first visit to New York City. At less than 200 pages, you can finish the thin novel in merely one or two sittings of continuous bibliophilic rapture. As you can infer from my inability to stop writing about the novel, it is an enthrallment you will willingly submit to even long after you have closed the book jacket.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Who do you think you are?

Two friends of mine from Chile, who are temporarily in India, frequently get asked where they are from and when they reply, a lot of people do not seem to have a clue about the existence of their country. When they say “Chile, in South America”, they are usually met with “Ah yes...Brazil? Argentina?”  It is only poetic justice that the following conversation happened with me while I travelled in a Chilean local bus or a “micro” last year on my way home from work.

                                       The micro we used to take to get back home from work 

                                                          (Photo from Google Images)

We live in a small city about two hours away from Santiago and our office used to be located bang in the middle of nowhere about forty minutes from our little town. When we missed the transport that was provided to us by our workplace, we had to return home on one of these micros. It used to be a fun lesson in anthropology, topology and sociology as the micro took a circuitous route through every single village between Curauma (our workplace) and Vina del Mar (home).

                                   Curauma - I believe it is Spanish for "amidst nothingness"

                                                     Glorious glorious Viña del Mar

                                                   (Photos courtesy Google Streeet View)

I was sitting next to the window in one of these micros one evening and the micro was quickly getting filled up with people from the neighbouring villages who were eager to visit our town, which they referred to as “the city”. An elderly gentleman sat next to me and realized in a few seconds that I was a foreigner and an Asian one at that. Here is the interesting little chat I had with him that day with my limited Spanish (I could only speak in the present tense at that point in time):

Him: Where are you from?

Me: India

Him: (his eyes light up) So that's in China?

Me: No, India – different country.

Him: (confused and disbelieving) Not the same as China?

Me: (feeling strangely apologetic about having to overturn his beliefs) We are neighbours, yes, but India is a different country.

Him: Oh ok, I have something in my bag from your country. It has something written on it in your language and you can read it out to me.

Me: Sure! But there are many Indian languages and I know only a few of them  – I hope I know the language on this thing that you have.

I am eager to find out what this “thing” is and he reaches in this bag made of polyester fibre that is stuffed with a hundred little things wrapped in old newspaper and searches for a couple of minutes. He takes out a little laughing Buddha with writing in Mandarin on the pedestal.

Me: Oh no no sir – that is not from India, it is from China. I cannot read what's written on it as I don’t know the language.

Him: Well, you could try to read it, couldn’t you?

Me: No, it is completely different from the scripts of Indian languages. I don’t have a clue.

Him: Oh well, but you speak Spanish and that is good. Which other languages do you speak?

(As I list out the languages I speak, he repeats each one after me)

Me: Hindi

Him: Indi

Me: Kannada

Him: Kananana

Me: English

Him: English

Me: French

Him: French

At this point, we arrive at his stop and he needs to get off the micro. But he says this as he makes his way out:

Him: (in all earnestness, not jokingly)..and you forgot Chinese. You speak Chinese. Have a nice day!

All the languages I listed a few seconds earlier failed me at that instant but I a managed a smile and waved back at him.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Living by the book

I finished reading 'Of Human Bondage' about a month ago. I have been reading my favourite sections from books I have read before and impatiently looking around for a next book to pick up ever since. I used to simply pick up the next book lying around and begin reading it back then when I read physical books and had a bookshelf to pick from. Now that my only access to books is from online stores, I sift through a range of review websites and blogs for a few weeks before eventually visualizing my bookshelf in Bangalore and remembering books that I had bought and left unread. That was precisely how I had chosen to read 'Of Human Bondage' - that paperback I had picked up at Blossoms with Such came to my mind and I had promptly downloaded it onto my Kindle.

The tragic opening chapter at once drew me in and ever so slightly made me want to get back to my cold non-fiction collection for comfort so that I could escape the pain and the grief in those opening pages. I remember the Saturday afternoon when I read the chapters on Philip's loneliness and hopelessness at boarding school and I remember hoping he would grow up already so that he could fend for himself. When he eventually moved to Germany, I was relieved, and for the first time since I started reading it, eager to see what lay ahead for Philip. Philip Carey's journey through Kent, Heidelberg, London, Paris and back to London is now legendary and is also sheer reading delight. While Somerset Maugham's virtuosic narration has been hailed in a million different articles and inspired in turn, several other literary works, this book stood out to me for one specific reason.

Philip's character grows from a helpless little orphaned boy with a club-foot to a relatively sure-footed 30 year old man at the end of the book. He goes from wanting to (or believing he wants to) join the clergy to considering becoming an accountant to an artist to a doctor by the time he reaches this age. I cannot help but use the insights from the only literary workshop I have ever attended in my life yet while reading fiction these days - this was a workshop on Characterisation during a literary festival in Birmingham, UK. I find it fascinating enough when I find a well-etched out character that I can begin to hear, see and know as I read through a book, but knowing a character as he grows from childhood through to adulthood and recognizing traits and quirks that could have come from a time of his life I have read about, I find, is a sign of a consummate skill in characterisation. One workshop does not qualify me to analyze a book through the lens of progression and characterisation but I do remember being equally taken in by this quality of writing in Une Vie long ago without knowing how to verbalize what it was that I had admired.

The few book reading sessions I have attended and writers' notes I have read have given me the impression that even accomplished authors whose stories happen to present a character at one particular point of his life would be able to detail the character's nature at all other ages. Even with this kind of intuitive knowledge of the character, it surely must take a bit of genius to weave a cogent, fascinating tale of all the stumbling blocks, inner demons, epiphanies, real and imagined joys and sufferings, and certainly the bondages, that make up the human experience. Of Human Bondage was a memorable read  because the book was as much about understanding Philip's inner world through his years of adolescent turmoil and recklessness of his youth to a man who is has begun to know himself as it was about what was around him, those things and people that give the book its title.

I began wondering halfway through the book if the novel was autobiographical in any way and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it indeed was. The fact that I too am 29, and know exactly how Philip felt that day near the National Gallery after all those years of mostly battling himself could also help in making this reading experience what it was.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Backpacks, bursitis and buoyancy

It is about 5 years since I unwittingly made a decision that was going to affect me for 5 more years to come. I had decided that if I was going to travel around Europe, I would have to take a backpack with me so that the future me could tell people I went backpacking around Europe. I spent no time wondering if my shoulders were going to be strong enough to serve the arduous task they were going to be assigned. While I remember coming back and writing a post about how happily smitten I was with the experience, I didn't speak of the mindnumbing pain I experienced in my shoulders every night. I do believe that the pain that stuck with me since then did germinate in those majestic train rides and walks across the Old Continent.

What followed were sporadic visits to multiple orthopaedists to explain my nightly shoulder pains and several  X-rays of my shoulders from what seemed to be very contorted angles. This was typically followed by the doctors finding absolutely nothing and telling me to refrain from straining my shoulders.

It took me an alarming pain in my finger joints one morning to visit an orthopaedist in Chile for the first time. While that turned out to be a side-effect of a few swigs of a beer I didn't like from the previous night, I also hesitantly mentioned to the doctor my little problem with the shoulders in my imperfect Spanish, even as I had expected to live with that pain caused by the 24 year old me for the rest of my life. If you have made it to the grimy details till this point, you would guess that a lazy blogger will probably not dedicate a post to a futile visit to a doctor's clinic. And that's right, please imagine trumpets and drumroll as I say this - I was diagnosed with bursitis. How I have waited to be diagnosed and not made to feel like I had imaginary pains emanating from wholly normal shoulders! It turned out there was a tiny sac of fat that was formed on a tendon in my shoulder, just the kind of thing that cannot be found in X-rays and one of reasons we have more advanced technology in medical diagnosis today.

I was fascinated by the discovery, to know that there was a real physical cause meant that there was something that could be done about it. This aforementioned (I lived in England for 2 years, of course I am allowed to use the word) orthopaedist saw my reports and told me that he would have to inject a liquid straight into the structure, there were going to be no pills and no casts. And he also said, that he would have to do it, "ahora", which meant I had no time to prepare myself for enduring a needle through a bony shoulder.

That was three days ago and I am now back from a swimming lesson this morning, feeling smug about how I managed to finish a few laps and use my arms now that I have been nearly rid of the bursitis. There was the minor issue with me gulping down too much water and believing I was going to die for those few seconds today, but that is just small talk in the larger context of being identified with and relieved of bursitis.

 The sun is shining, I can see the gorgeous Pacific Ocean from where I type this. It is unbelievable how far I can look out into the ocean today. My parents are visiting and I can freely throw my hands up in the air to celebrate the filter coffee my mum is going to make now.

¡Hasta luego y que tengan un muy buen fin de semana!   

Monday, September 17, 2012

A veces me encanta la tranquilidad

It is just over one year since we started living in Chile. Even though we landed here for the first time in May of last year, we left almost immediately to spend three months in the United States and returned just in time for the annual nationwide party that occurs during Independence Day in September. This post is going to be about Chile and my admiration for this landmass that has only been growing since that day one year ago.

More specifically, this post is for the Chilean Pacific Ocean, for its prussian blue lakes and rivers and for the infinite pod of tranquility they are suspended within. We came back last week from a trip to Valdivia and it was like the soul-massage in the same way our other trips to the Chilean south have been. There was that ferry ride over the part of Rio Valdivia where it joins the Pacific Ocean and from the choppy waters, it was hard to tell if we were sailing on the river or on the ocean. Then there was that drive across the coast to the Reserva Costanera Valdiviana during which we had to stop at several points to look to our right and widen our eyes at the kaleidoscopic colours of the ocean and to take in the full breadth of the view we were privileged to find.

The next day, we drove down to Lago Ranco to rediscover the sense of calm we had experienced near Lago Titicaca in Bolivia and to varying degrees near all the many lakes around Pucon. The lakes in this region are giant mirrors with the kind of placid waters of lakes we read about in hackneyed religious/spiritual quotes.

Each of our travels here have brought us to places where I have been able to immerse myself in vistas to the extent of being conscious of only a sense of sight and nothing beyond, no mind to process thoughts, no skin, no ears, nothing else. This brings me to another related subject that strikes me everytime I return from these trips to magical places. I have spent many more years of my life than I would have liked listening to a lot of babble about what the religion I was born into means. That religion, which people have used as an excuse to pollute the most majestic rivers and lakes in the name of worship. I know there will be people who will be quick to talk about what the original scriptures meant in their purest form and how what is practiced today does not conform to what was meant to be. I find it pointless to talk about it in its purest form if it has degenerated into what it is today and if its current form has such big implications on the physical world around us. I will also not say anything about it being used as a whip to break spirits (for the most part, that of women) with except for stating that it is so used.

It took me a year in Chile to know surely that my idea of a Creator is reinforced in unpolluted crystal clear waters, in clean air and in mountains, that even today look just like they probably did when they were formed millions of years ago.

I know I have digressed but this is a rant that was long overdue. This is still, in fact a prosaic ode to Chile's natural beauty. I am just only also saying that apart from giving me something to feast my eyes upon, these landscapes have given me something much more weighty, they also gently reinstated my belief.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

We're talking real blackberries here

It was a very hot July afternoon and we were hungry and groggy, having taken the early morning flight from Charlotte to Washington D.C. Google maps had made us get off one metro stop too early for the second time (the first time was in Paris) and we were lugging our bags around with no clue about how much farther away our hotel was. There was a whole line of Ethiopian restaurants on the street but they were all closed as it was past lunchtime when, miraculously, we came across the cheerful looking Cafe Saint Ex almost yelling to us to come on in already in a slight but very endearing French accent.

I really must add a bit of background right here to address the crucial question of why write about the prosaic incident of finding a cafe while walking around in Washington D.C. A few years ago, when I was still a student, my French lessons had become my outlet for my limited imagination and I used to find myself gladly conjugating verbs in the subjonctif imparfait and writing something about how la vie sucked and not completing my practical record for Statistics, which was one of my majors in graduation. Those French classes had all the appeal to make me want to spend all my time learning the language - a) It was French b) It would not help me one bit in earning my real degree in Statistics, Math and Economics. At some point during our fourth year of learning French, we were asked to review a book and present it to the class. That was the time I briefly gave up on doing everything and limited myself to reading and re-reading Vol de Nuit (Night Flight) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

The book, written in the 1930s is about the pilot Fabien who works for a commercial airmail company in Argentina and is tasked with flying out during a storm to deliver mail. His boss Riviere has committed to himself to take on the most fearful risks to make commercial airmail more viable than other means of delivery such as rail or road. He is undeterred even when some of his pilots have lost their lives just to adhere to his instructions of departing on time irrespective of what the weather is like. The narrative is very simple and presents the story from the point of view of Fabien, Riviere and Fabien's wife. All I remember now are disconnected passages - about how Fabien is able to see the porch of a house from his lonely perch in the middle of the night sky and wonders if the person in that house knows that someone many miles up in the sky watched the lights of their house go off, the other about how he looks at the stars all around him and takes in the bejewelled death trap he is in after he realises that he is going to die in the storm that he knew about even before taking off.

This book was published in 1933 and in 1944, Saint-Exupery, who had previously been a pilot himself, died almost the very same way Fabien did, except that he was on a mission to get intelligence from Germany for the Allies. After that obsessive compulsive reading of Vol de Nuit, I chanced upon the ultimate work of published genius that is The Little Prince by Saint-Ex and that permanently altered the rank-ordering of the Greatest People Ever that is a running list in my head.

And that afternoon, when we entered the cafe, there were models of what seemed like WW1 and WW2 aircrafts and propellers hanging down from the ceiling, there were pictures of Antoine de Saint-Exupery and I ate the best French toast with blackberry compote in the world. The bookshelf they had there wasn't as big as it should have been for a place like that. But then I took one more bite of the toast and looked all around me and knew that while life would largely want to make me scibble furiously about the many ways in which it goes wrong, this was one of those rare moments, like the lining up of major celestial bodies in a straight line is for astronomers, which I had to soak in entirely and carefully note down.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Zinda har pyaar rahen

It is day 4 in Vina del Mar, Chile, our new home and we feel like we have been here a while already, and I mean that in a good way. The people here are among the friendliest I have come across anywhere. I do not see why everyone everywhere cannot be as nice as Vina del Marians. Owing to the proximity of the Indian features and skin tone to the Latin American ones, we are constantly mistaken for localites and people go on to utter a few sentences in rapid Spanish before we can sadly remind them that we know 'no espanol'. We are working on learning Spanish as it is embarrassing to be at the receiving end of such warmth and to not be able to communicate in the local language.

We have been exploring the area around where we live and that mainly comprises of long walks along the sparkling blue Pacific. Yesterday, while walking around and taking pictures, we came across some very friendly street dogs. One of them invited himself into a game of beach volleyball that two boys were playing and jumped cheerfully towards the sky every single time one of them served. He reminded me so much of Jolly, our very friendly canine friend in Bangalore who had none of the cautious judiciousness of street dogs and was always too happy to welcome anyone into our home. She is really a Latina in her soul, that one.

Stepping back a bit and taking in the larger picture - we have moved to Chile - that oddly shaped country I knew nothing about 4 months ago! There is a certain definiteness around new beginnings that comes from moving into a new country, which does not come with invented mileposts such as New Years and birthdays. While I am always the brooding, over-analysing, inwardly nitpicking kind, I find that an overwhelming change of physical scenery can help me snap out of a phase and at the very least, attempt to forget the people and events that have turned me into a radically cynical adult. It is also easier to completely write off others' judgements and the need for validation in a place where there really is nobody else whose opinion can matter in my decisions (my other half obviously does not come under 'others' ). Long haul flights provide just the right ambience for soul-searching with all those clouds floating past and with the sense of not belonging to any real time-zone. In the journey to Chile, I thought of all the people who have known and cared for me for the longest time now and how I want to be seen in their eyes as the person they have always known me to be and not as this icy, reticent person I sometimes find myself to be. So many words that have been held back at all the wrong times, so many hugs I should have gotten up and given.

Vina del mar is Spanish for 'Vineyard by the sea' and gets its name from all the famous vineyards around here. We helped ourselves to a glass of the exquisite local red wine tonight. A part of all this is probably the wine talking. In the spirit of wine-induced clichés, *raises her glass* this one is for new beginnings.